By James Wallace Harris, Thursday, December 11, 2014
Now that I’ve been retired for over a year, I realized I’ve learned something about being retired. Ever since I retired, the most common greeting I get is, “How’s retired life?” I don’t know if folks are curious about retirement, or if it’s just their way of asking what’s new. Anyway, here’s my answer.
When people bring up retirement, most of my unretired friends lament they can’t afford to retire. I have many friends that have retired and many that haven’t. It’s like the story about ants and grasshoppers. Some creatures hoard for the future, and some just hop around having fun. If you want to retire you have to transform from a hopper to a hoarder. I did that by spending less years before I retired. I just stopped buying shit. If you want to know what retired life is like, live off 50% of your present income each month and save the rest for three years.
Now that I am retired I don’t seem to have any money problems – yet. This morning when a guy was blowing leaves off my roof, I wondered how much it would cost me if he fell and sued. Or could I pay for that kind of cancer drug that cost $80,000 a year? Or something bad happens that insurance doesn’t cover. We’re all one random catastrophe away from being ruined. Even though I’ve arranged to afford retirement, there’s always money problems to consider. As I tell my unretired grasshopper friends, every dollar you spend now is one you’ll want in old age.
I’ve got my finances in order, and hope the money lasts the lifetime I have left. But on a day-to-day level, being retired means watching pennies. If you’re the kind of person who has fun without looking at the bill, then I would recommend working as long as you can. In the past year I’ve been called cheap or tight a few times, and that bugs me. That’s not something I was ever called while working. But I realized, part of being retired is learning to live cheaper and hanging onto money.
The stereotype thing to say is “I’m living on a fixed budget” but that’s bullshit. Most people live on a paycheck that’s the same every month, so a “fixed budget” doesn’t really convey the point. Being retired means learning to live on a reduced budget. There won’t be any merit raises or jumps to jobs with higher salaries. So no more fantasies for fancy cars, bigger houses and vacation adventures, and that affects you psychologically. Middle life is about expanding and upsizing. Retirement is about shrinking and downsizing. But don’t get me wrong, it’s not depressing. Once you start living efficiently, you realize how wasteful living used to be.
As of now I don’t worry about money.
Do I Miss Work?
No. Not in the least. Work did provide a structure, filled up my time, and gave me a sense of purpose and value, but after 35 years at the same workplace, I was done. It’s extremely nice to have all my time free to do what I want.
However, I don’t know if I’m typical. I do know some retired people who are restless not working. I never use the word bored about myself, but if you’ve ever claimed to be bored, I’d be wary of retirement. Every night I go to sleep lamenting I didn’t have enough time. If I have any complaint about retirement, it’s because I still don’t have enough time. Having all your time free does not mean endless time, but for some people, it’s way too much time.
I worked at a university and helped a lot of people, so I got a certain sense of satisfaction from work, plus I felt like my efforts went to a good cause. Now that I’m not working I feel selfish, and that I’m not contributing to society. But that doesn’t bother me. I did my time, I’m retired. However, if you need constant proof of self-worth, you might not want to retire.
Am I Doing What I Dreamed of Doing?
I thought I’d write a novel after I retired. I always imagined if I had the time I would write a novel. I didn’t. Now I see that writing is a novel is something you have to do no matter how much time you have. I don’t have that drive. But this also taught me who I was before retirement is the same person afterwards. I don’t know if this applies to other people or not, but I’m guessing if you’re retiring so you can be a different person, it might not work out.
I haven’t given up on writing fiction, but I’m becoming more aware of what’s involved. It’s real work – like a job. It takes discipline and dedication. Right now I’m enjoying not working and just puttering around with my hobbies. Some people continue to work after they retire, and some don’t. I haven’t decided. I feel no need to work. I wanted to write novels because I think I have some good stories to tell, but I’m not motivated by money or success, so it’s hard to push myself to work hard again at something with no immediate rewards. But that’s another aspect to retirement. Retiring is a kind of letting go. Picking an age to retire is picking an age to let go. You’re letting go of work and ambitions of success.
Live With Less
Disregarding the issue of money, retiring means living with less – unless you’re a natural born hoarder. You start thinking, “Do I need this big house?” “Do I need all these clothes?” “Do I need all these books?” “What am I saving all this junk for?” and often the answer is no. I guess hoarders always answer yes.
Giving up cable was great for me. Susan works out of town M-F and has cable at her apartment. When she retires we’ll get cable again because she’d go crazy without it. But for me, having fewer channels sharpened my sense of self. I’m pretty much down to Netflix streaming, PBS, and the NBC Nightly News. And I’m good. I’m very good. I have more great shows than time to watch.
Now here’s the danger of this trend. I had a friend, John Williamson, who before he died, had gotten down to only liking two things in all of reality – the music of Duane Allman and Benny Goodman. When it comes to pop culture I’m still expanding my interests, but I can foresee a time when I’ll contract. I don’t know if I’ll jettison as much as Williamson, but I can sense the beginning of that urge. One to withdraw into stuff I love and forget everything else. Well, as they say, you can’t take it with you.
There’s something appealing about living with less. It’s a feeling of streamlining. Of scraping the barnacles, packing to travel light, of seeking Zen simplicity. My guess is getting old causes two extremes. You become a hoarder or monk. I’m on the monkish side.
Working at the same university for thirty-five years made me feel I knew a lot of people, and I did. But work friendships really don’t transfer to retired friendships. Some did, most didn’t. I tried to keep in touch with some people. I called them three times. If they never initiated a call back, I gave up. The job place is a powerful source of social contacts. The friends I see now are mostly the same people I saw before I after work before I retired.
If you love a lot of casual friendships keep working and don’t retire. If you’re not your own best company, think real hard about retiring. Luckily, hanging around the house is no punishment for me.
If you aren’t happy at your job, you might not be happy retired. Scientific research has found most people are happier at work than in their leisure. People generally find happiness when doing things, and for most people, work is where they often get things done. Now that I’m retired I’ve also learned that I’m happiest when I have things to do. At the end of the day, I feel best when I can remember several things I did that day. It doesn’t take much though – finishing a book, cooking a pot of soup, publishing a blog, cleaning off a desk, watching a documentary, doing something with a friend. People who get bored are people who don’t know what to do.
It’s also rewarding to think of two or three small tasks each morning, and actually get them done before the day is over. Surprisingly, it doesn’t have to be much – order new underwear, pay a bill, visit the library, clean out a drawer, zero out my email inbox. My days are happily filled by with little pursuits.
Now that I’ve been retired over a year, and I’m getting into my new routines and habits, I’m starting to discover new things about myself. Work filled so much of my time that it distorted my view of life. Now that I have all my time free I’m seeing myself differently. Who I planned to be in retirement is much different than who I’ve become. But then, fantasies are always different from reality.
Before I retired I imagined filling my time on big projects, but I’ve discovered that it’s more about the little projects that count. Big projects take weeks, months and even years to accomplished. For day-to-day happiness, it’s all about how many little things I can do in a day. Before I retired I thought being free from 9-to-5 work meant I could finally write that novel. And that still might happen, but writing a novel takes a very long time, and if I had to wait until one was published, it might be years before I found the satisfaction of accomplishment.
Even though I’m the same person as I was in youth and middle age, I’m also becoming different. I’m not really old at 63, I’m sort of like an infant elderly person, just learning to crawl. From this vantage point I can see becoming old is transformative. I have no idea what it will be like. But I feel like I’m in a marathon and I’d better pace myself.